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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Günter Grass rattrapé par l’"Oubli"

by Bruno Odent

Günter Grass is snared by "Forgetfulness"

Translated Sunday 20 August 2006, by Henry Crapo

Germany: Revelations by the writer concerning his enrollment in the SS at the age of 17, while his literary production can be characterized as a battle against the forgetting of the past, has given rise to both surprise and polemics.

Günter Grass, who has devoted his lifetime to the fight against forgetfulness, exhorting his countrymen never to modify the "indelible mark of Auschwitz", has himself been caught by his own silence concerning a brief period of his life.

We knew that the writer, born in 1927, came from a Nazi family. The recital of his personal history, as previously published, made no effort to hide this aspect of the affair. There one learned that the father of the great writer, who has become a sort of living conscience for the modern German State, had joined the Nazi Party in 1936 and that, enrolled at the age of 11 in the Hitler Youth, he worked on the Nazi magazine Participate, and witnessed the Night of Broken Glass in 1938, in the crowd which watched the Jewish businesses and homes go up in flames in the streets of Dantzig, his home town. He would recall this moment in a compelling chapter of The Tin Drum, that pitiless investigation on the responsibility not only of a little group of Nazi criminals, but of the entire German people. Enlisted, like millions of German adolescents, the young Grass let it be understood, with no apparent self-complaisance, that he had been manipulated, and that when he heard the confession of Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth, during the Nuremberg trials, he was shocked, and underwent a crisis of conscience that would nourish his entire literary work.

But behold this old writer, close today to his eightieth birthday, who has chosen to turn back to this blank page that remained in his biography, and what a blank page: at the end of the war, at the age of seventeen, he became a member of the Waffen SS and wore the uniform of that organization, symbol of symbols of the Nazi terror, and that he was taken prisoner by the Allies.

In his most recent autobiographical work, the author has chosen no longer to conceal this terrible detail, explaining: "It must come out" [1] it justifies a silence of sixty-one years by the "shame" he felt about this episode of his lfe, and he explains his voluntary enrollment in 1944 as a means to escape the family universe and to satisfy his desire for adventure. "For me the SS was in no way frightening, it was an elite unit that was always sent where the fighting was toughest." [2]

This revelation has also unleashed a formidable polemic in Germany. Some, whom one can thoroughly understand, have spontaneously exhibited their highly disconcerted reaction, while the fervent defenders of the author openly show their discomfort. But some few have also believed it to be the moment to reopen some old wounds, demanding outright that he turn in his Nobel Prize for Literature, obtained in 1999 for the entirety of his work. These are the persons who most vehemently criticize the author, at the publication of each of his books, precisely because he treats, each time without complaisance, those themes that are deeply buried in the collective consciousness of the German people. The Nazi past comes to the surface in all of his books [3], where, as one now sees, he feels more keenly these things because he himself participated in that history and in its concealment.

But is is also a question of witch-hunt and of anti-democratic measures justified by the West German authorities, in the 1970’s, during the hunt for terrorists of the Baader group. (The large-circulation daily newspaper Bild doesn’t hesitate to call grass "anti-German".)

Or it concerns, two decades after the fact, a book [4], that makes a complete break with the general concensus at the time, denouncing what went wrong with the reunification, or rather with the brutal normalization of East Germany, with its terrible human consequences, with the "pushing aside of the true revolutionaries", as he wrote [5], the East German citizens who were artisans of the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989. "Those who, without violence, broke the cartel of the state and the party, those manly October children.

Most fortunately, despite the many questions that prompt this delayed but courageous confession by the author, who still has little to say about his motives, his role, and the actions that eventually led him to join the SS, the Nobel jury in Stockholm has refused to follow up on appeals to degrade the author. Salman Rushdy and the filmmaker Volker Schlöndorf, director of "The Drum", have yesterday also offered their support.

The film director congratulates him, in a personal letter to a friend, for having dared "free himself", a healthy act that will permit him "no longer to have to present himself as an incarnate monument". "He is an extraordinary force now for over half a century", affirms the author of the Satanic Verses, "and one doesn’t undo all of that construction because of a crack in the wood."

[1Beim Häuten der Zweibel (Peeling the Onion), available in bookshops this month.

[2Grass said this in an interview last August 12 in an interview given to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

[3Grass holds that since Auschwitz it is impossible for the German artist to express himself in frank colors, that he must use black and white. Propos d’un sans-patrie Le Seuil, 1990.

[4Ein weites Feld (A Long Story), 1996

[5Propos d’un sans-patrie (Man without a Country), Le Seuil 1990.

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